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They are never quite as clever as they think they are. They are never that subtle, that funny or that original, Mark Eaton has learned. Take this particular stranger—30-ish white male, black-rimmed glasses, purple hoodie—on a Wednesday afternoon at Salt Lake City International Airport. As Eaton, the 7'4" former Jazz center, chats with a Delta attendant at Gate D10 about changing his seat to an exit row, the stranger's strategy plays out in all-too-familiar steps: 1) head straight for Eaton; 2) pretend to be in line behind the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year; 3) spin around, shoot both arms into the air and smile. Holding the pose now, chin barely above the belt loops on Eaton's soaring khakis, this fellow flier evokes a thrilled tourist at the foot of the Empire State Building.
Before the flash of a coconspirator's iPhone camera goes off, Eaton swivels his head. ("I'm so far up," he likes to say, "that they think I never notice.") The former All-Star blocked 3,064 shots in his NBA career, including a still-record 456 in 1984--85, and right now he would love nothing more than to extend his hand and interrupt another.
Better judgment prevails, however. As in thousands of similar situations before, Eaton allows the picture. Feigned ignorance isn't bliss, but it can sustain a big man's sanity on trips such as this one to Las Vegas. "Though it would've been nice," Eaton whispers, bending down to the ear of the reporter accompanying him, "if that guy had, you know, asked."
Like any 7-footer loosed by the NBA, Eaton's sports afterlife has been by no means premised upon permission. Any sort of enclosed space—the Whole Foods near his home in Park City, the ski lodge at Deer Valley, the Italian restaurant he co-owns in Salt Lake City—is stage enough for a spectacle that must, like the towering 54-year-old himself, be seen to be fully believed. Even with the planet's biggest celebrities (your Oprahs and Biebers) word of their presence must spread before madness ensues. But for men of Eaton's height, famous or not, there is no hiding. Instead, every entrance is followed by a sudden hush and accompanied by a Truman Show--like sensation that everyone is staring at you, discussing you and executing covert schemes to chronicle you without your knowledge. As Eaton, who these days works as a full-time motivational speaker, sums it up, "For us, there is no fading into the mist."
Take your pick of the übertall and ask them what life is like standing high among the masses, without charter flights or other NBA-provided boundaries. Ask 7'2" Robb Dryden, a one-time Georgia center who made it as far as training camp with the 76ers and the Grizzlies in the early 2000s and who now works as a home builder in Enterprise, Ala. "The absolute worst place a 7-footer could ever go is Walmart," says the 32-year-old Dryden, who hasn't set foot in one in years. "You might as well be in a circus sideshow." Or 7'6" Shawn Bradley, at age 39 a Utah cattle rancher and a spokesman for the Children's Miracle Network. "I once did an event with [Hall of Fame quarterback] Steve Young," Bradley recalls. "Steve goes, 'Shawn, I love hanging around you. When I'm alone I can put on a hat and sunglasses and may or may not be recognized. But you always take all the attention.'" Less than two years ago Bradley, a devout Mormon, took his wife and four daughters to volunteer at a leper colony outside Chennai, India. Nonmedical photography is prohibited in that locale, but the colonists begged a doctor to let them borrow his camera, otherwise used to document flesh wounds, in order to snap pictures with the former 76ers, Nets and Mavericks center.
Even Bradley's journey halfway around the world failed to provide refuge from the endless loop of questions, which always features two queries: How tall are you? and Did you play basketball? "That all started when I was in grade school, and it still happens today," says 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's alltime scoring leader. "People could be very rude. Sometimes you get to the point where you don't deal with people and you just don't answer." Sometimes, even if you have never been invisible, you can't help but try.
Fact: An actual accounting of 7-footers, domestic or global, does not exist in any reliable form. National surveys by the Center for Disease Control list no head count or percentile at that height. (Only 5% of adult American males are 6'3" or taller.) "In terms of the growth spectrum, 7 feet is simply extreme," explains endocrinologist Shlomo Melmed, dean of the medical faculty at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The term 7-footer is itself a kind of outer limit, a far-off threshold beyond which precise measurement seems superfluous. A 6'4" guard isn't a 6-footer, after all. The curve shaped by the CDC's available statistics, however, does allow one to estimate the number of American men between the ages of 20 and 40 who are 7 feet or taller: fewer than 70 in all. Which indicates, by further extrapolation, that while the probability of, say, an American between 6'6" and 6'8" being an NBA player today stands at a mere 0.07%, it's a staggering 17% for someone 7 feet or taller.
In this century, for the tallest among us, hoops is not just a reasonable hobby but a de facto life imperative. "I'll check up on anyone over 7 feet that's breathing," says Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting. It shouldn't be surprising that the tallest living American-born man, 7'8" George Bell, played college ball (at Biola University in California), made camp with the Clippers in 1988 and suited up for the Globetrotters before taking on his present job as a sheriff's deputy in Norfolk. Or that 7'8" Paul Sturgess, who can clutch a rim without jumping, emigrated from Loughborough, England, explicitly to play basketball and finished his collegiate career at Mountain State University in West Virginia this past season. Or that LSU coaches encouraged 7'2" Andrew Del Piero, once a tuba player with the Tigers' band, to drop his instrument last year and walk onto the varsity basketball team. The rising junior has yet to enter a game, but there he is.
"There ain't but two things you can do at 7 feet," jokes Harry Stanback, whose son, Trevor, is a center at Summit Intermediate School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and, already 6'8" at age 13, projected to join the 7-footers' club soon enough. "One of them is play basketball. The other is clean elephant butts."
Today, thanks to pioneers like Bob Kurland (6'10"), George Mikan (6'10"), Wilt Chamberlain (7'1") and Abdul-Jabbar—each of whom forced the collegiate and/or professional ranks to revise their rules in attempts to restrict big man dominance—a 7-footer sticks out less inside the paint than anywhere else in the world, at any point in history. For simple scale, take a look at the relatively lilliputian requirements to join the roughly 3,000 members of Tall Clubs International (phone number: 888-I-M-TALL-2), the biggest social organization of its kind. Male members must stand all of 6'2"; females just 5'10". According to Dave Rasmussen, the club's tallest member at 7'3" and a former unenthusiastic basketball player at Custer High in Milwaukee, the club boasts only a handful of 7-footers worldwide. "Over the years people have asked me to join their tall club," says 7'1" former Bullets, Sonics and Nets center Jim McIlvaine, now 38. "But I'm already in one. It's called the National Basketball Retired Players Association. And our members are taller than theirs."